Eight years of huge changes to the world's biggest internet population, visualized
Think you know the average Chinese netizen? China’s internet changes faster than you think
The term “netizen” has never been fully accepted in the English-speaking world. The portmanteau of the words internet and citizen is said to have been coined by an American in the 1990s, but these days you’re more likely to see stories about netizens in China -- or wǎngmín, as they’re called in Chinese.
Chinese netizens have become surprisingly influential on social media. When they speak out on microblogging website Weibo, they get quoted in both domestic and global media. Their ridicule can force apologies out of luxury brands and make Communist Party officials lose their jobs. In China, the netizen rules.
But Chinese netizens are very diverse, not just people speaking out on social media. The term technically includes everyone who uses the internet in the country, which means it refers to 854 million people. That’s not just the largest internet population in the world, it’s more than double the total population of the US.
Most of them have only started to come online within the last decade. And as China’s internet population swells, as more online services pop up, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the habits of all of these netizens have changed dramatically.
Today, a typical netizen will start their day by scrolling through the news during their morning commute to work. Just before noon, they’ll use a food delivery app and browse Taobao or Douyin while munching on takeout. In the evening, they’ll chat away on their messaging app of choice and watch videos on their favorite video platforms until late into the night.
This is the picture painted by the latest report from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), the government agency that oversees China’s domain name registry. Twice a year, the organization releases a survey about the country’s internet populace and netizens’ favorite activities. When traced back several years, these reports paint an interesting picture of how Chinese netizens have changed and how China’s internet has changed with them.
As of July 2019, the CNNIC reported that China’s internet population accounts for more than 60% of its population of 1.4 billion people. By comparison, 89% of the US population is online, according to the China Internet Report.
There are slightly more men online in China than women. They are overwhelmingly young urbanites, but many of them only have a middle-school education. Many are also employees and students, but a fifth are self-employed. That could mean they are their own bosses, working in the gray economy or as one of China’s estimated 400 million-strong gig economy.
The reports also give a picture of how China’s internet has changed over the years. For instance, Chinese people now spend an average of 28 hours per week online, nine hours more than in 2011.
And back then, the internet was different: More people went online from their desktop computers (74%) than on mobile phones (65.5%). Today, 99.1% of netizens use mobile internet.
As the number of smartphones rose, so did the number of netizens. The number of people who shop, watch videos, play games and pay online expanded up to fourfold within the last 8 years.
Naturally, what’s popular (and what isn’t) has changed, too. At the beginning of 2011, for example, microblogging site Weibo exploded in popularity, with users increasing more than 200% in just half a year. However, 2011 was also the year that Weibo experienced one of its first major censorship drives when a high-speed train crash resulted in an estimated 40 fatalities.
But by 2015, Weibo’s popularity was sliding, coinciding with the rise of WeChat, which remains China’s favorite chat app. WeChat also overshadowed other rising social platforms in China, including Facebook-like Renren, which peaked around 2012 only to fall into relative obscurity. It also overshadowed Tencent’s other chat platform, QQ, which has made a comeback in recent years.
Over time, WeChat became the everything app. It even contributed to the rise of mobile payments in China. After WeChat introduced its virtual red envelopes for Chinese New Year in 2014, more people started using WeChat Pay, helping it become a major rival to Alibaba’s Alipay. That same year, payment applications became the fastest-growing category of the year, increasing 63.4% in just six months.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
The reports also capture rising and falling trends simply based on what they choose to include. Before 2015, for instance, CNNIC reports still counted the number of forum users. However, at the time, the user numbers for ride hailing and online education platforms still weren’t high enough to merit a separate category. Today, 339 million people are using ride hailing and 232 million users are on education platforms.
Live streaming, one of the nation’s favorite pastimes, was also not counted in 2015. But by 2019, more than half of China's netizens (50.7%) were tuning in to watch their favorite live streamers.
Food delivery apps would soon become another rising trend, seeing explosive growth in 2017 when the number of users jumped 41.6%. Netizens started ordering more food online thanks to cheap takeout prices subsidized by competing giants like Meituan, Alibaba’s Ele.me and Baidu Takeout.
That was also the year a wave of bike sharing companies began to appear. The streets quickly filled up with thousands of bicycles, and the number of users reached 106 million, according to the 2017 CNNIC report.
By the very next year, many of these companies were declaring bankruptcy. Only a few of the big players were left, including Ofo, Didi’s Bluegogo and Meituan-owned Mobike. The bike sharing category was notably absent from the 2019 report.
Short video apps soon started capturing the attention of China’s netizens equally abruptly. They rose rapidly in 2018 and now have a sizable 647 million users. More than 75% of Chinese internet users are now using Kuaishou or China’s version of TikTok, Douyin.
The digital lifestyle of the modern Chinese netizen was made possible by two important factors: Rising speeds and falling costs. In the past five years, mobile internet speeds have increased sixfold while costs have dropped by more than 90%, according to the CNNIC reports. An average netizen today uses 7.2 GB of mobile internet per month, which is about 20% higher than the global average.
Interestingly, there is one thing that hasn’t changed much in China’s online population over the last 8 years: The proportion of rural internet users. In 2011, rural netizens made up 27% of the internet population. Today, they make up 26.3%. So city residents are getting online at a faster rate, but China has made getting rural areas online a priority in recent years.
Education is one area that could help bridge the gap. According to CNNIC, online education apps could help make up for the shortcomings of the poorer education facilities often found in the countryside. Chinese farmers have also come to embrace ecommerce and live streaming, which might help change habits quickly. But it may also bring some new players to the scene since where you live in China often determines the tech you use. After all, it was places outside China’s major metropolises that gave rise to Pinduoduo.